Microsoft Office 2010 Boosts Core Features, Branches Out onto the Web

Microsoft's flagship desktop suite comes packed with modest, albeit worthwhile, enhancements to core Office capabilities, while breaking significant new ground by pushing Office apps beyond the bounds of the Windows desktop into rich, Web-based versions that perform as well on Firefox and Safari browsers as on Microsoft's Internet Explorer.

After an Office 2007 release packed with file format and interface overhauls that many users and organizations found challenging to digest, Microsoft returns to a smaller, more familiar-size release with Office 2010, which became available earlier this month for volume license customers, and is set to hit retail next week.

As with most other Office releases, the 2010 version introduces plenty of enticements for upgraders: new features for producing slick-looking documents, spreadsheets and presentations; interface tweaks for surfacing and, in some places, tamping down the slicker-output features from previous releases; and more hooks into SharePoint Server 2010, which shipped alongside Office 2010, for more tightly knitting knowledge workers.

For instance, the biggest interface tweak in Office 2010 is probably the addition of a "backstage area" to replace what had been the "File" menu drop-down in earlier versions of Office. In each application in the suite, these backstage areas house "meta document" options, such as those for saving, opening, printing or exporting. In Outlook, the backstage area contains account and folder settings, alongside import and export options. In PowerPoint, I visited the backstage area of a presentation with embedded video to shrink the size of my video for different sorts of distribution.

Another relatively mundane but useful set of enhancements in Office 2010 revolve around cutting and pasting. In response to research that indicated that the most common action that users take after pasting a chunk of content into an Office document is hitting the undo button, the team added new pre- and post-paste features, housed in context-sensitive Smart Tags, for reducing the need to hit undo. For instance, in Excel, I entered the number 1 in the first cell of a spreadsheet column, grabbed the corner of the cell with my mouse, and dragged down 30 or so rows. Excel filled each cell in the set with a 1, and spawned a Smart Tag to ask if I'd intended to fill the cells with a series of numbers-1, 2, 3 and so on.

Modest enhancements and interface tweaks aside, Office 2010 is a major release, if not for the way it churns up existing components than for the way it expands Office onto new platforms and devices. Office 2010 marks the debut of a slate of Web-based Office applications that are available in hosted, on premises or free, ad-supported forms. What's more, these applications boast uncharacteristically broad support for non-Microsoft products-the apps support Mozilla's Firefox, Apple's Safari and Google's Chrome Web browsers nearly as well as Microsoft's own Internet Explorer.

As they stand now, the Web apps are much thinner in terms of features and extensibility that the better-established Web app offerings from Google and Zoho. Feature limitations aside, at sites that store documents on a SharePoint 2010 server, I can imagine the Office Web Apps seeing frequent use for previewing documents and carrying out minor edits. Even if broadened Web access options and more SharePoint-orchestrated collaboration choices aren't the driver for upgrading to 2010, I imagine that most Office users will find items out of those handsome and handy categories to like in the new release.

Moving forward, I'll be interested to see how Microsoft moves forward adding new features and improvements to its Web Apps. In particular, I'll be paying attention to how well the company handles the challenge of rolling out improvement not only on the Web Apps instances Microsoft hosts itself, but also on the various on-premises installations of its Office and SharePoint customers.

Office 2010 will be available at retail in a number of different editions, including Home and Student, Home and Business, and Professional editions, priced at between $150 and $500. Microsoft has done away with the upgrade pricing discounts that were available for Office 2007 and previous versions of the suite. For volume license customers, Office 2010 is available in Standard and Professional Plus editions. The Standard edition includes Word, Excel, Outlook, PowerPoint, OneNote, and Publisher, as well as access to Office Web Apps. The Professional Plus edition adds SharePoint Workspace (formerly known as Groove), InfoPath and Microsoft Communicator. For more information on Office 2010 editions and pricing, see:

I conducted most of my Office 2010 tests on virtual machines with between 1 and 2 GB of RAM running the 64-bit version of Windows 7, or the 32-bit version of Windows XP SP3. Office 2010 ran happily on every configuration I tested. I tested the Office Web Apps from Internet Explorer 8 running on Windows 7 and Windows XP SP3, as well as from Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox running on the Ubuntu 10.04 and Fedora 13 Linux distributions. I tested the Office Web Apps hosted from a SharePoint Server 2010 instance running in our lab, and from a beta version of Microsoft's Office Live service.

Office 2010 is the first version of the suite to be available in 64-bit, as well as 32-bit versions. The suite installs its 32-bit version by default, whether or not you're running a 64-bit operating system. I didn't test the 64-bit versions of the applications.

Web Apps

The aspect of the Office 2010 release that's most fascinated me is the extension of the suite to include Web-based versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote. Office 2010 isn't the first version of the suite to reach out to the Web, but it is the first release to enable users to get at least some of their Office work done through a Web browser. What's more, as with the version of Outlook Web Access that ships with Exchange 2010, the new Office Web Apps are designed to run well not only on the Windows-only Internet Explorer, but on the cross-platform friendly Firefox, Safari and Chrome browsers.

After testing the Office Web Apps in their in-development and final versions over the past several months, I'd say that the while Apps are off to a solid start in these areas of usefulness and cross-platform support, there's still plenty of work to be done before they catch up to the better-established office Web application offerings from Google and Zoho. Basic features such as a word count function in Word are missing, and the Office Web Apps offer a much narrower range of file format options than either Google and Zoho or the full-sized Office applications.

With that said, the Office Web Apps do shine rather brightly for their handling of Office's default file formats. The Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents I tested with rendered well in my test browsers, offering the best route I've seen for viewing an Office document as intended without having a copy of Office installed. In addition, the print function in the Web Apps does an excellent job converting Office documents to PDF format.

I tested the Office Web Apps from a SharePoint Server 2010 instance running in our lab, and from a test version of Microsoft's Windows Live service. From Windows Live, I found new options for creating, editing and viewing Office documents using Office Web Apps. I could start by uploading an existing document or starting a new one. On our SharePoint, I couldn't figure out how to create a new document from scratch-the New Document options I found in SharePoint directed me only to a file upload function.

I uploaded a Word document stored in the binary .DOC format to our SharePoint instance, and could readily view it from my browser. When I opted to "edit in browser," the server alerted me that it would have to convert my document to the newer, .DOCX format in order for me to edit it. The same went for dealing with PowerPoint and Excel documents stored in the earlier format. I uploaded a different document stored in the OpenDocument Format-the default format for, which Office 2010 does support-but found that there was no way to view, edit or convert the ODF document from Office Web Apps.

Once I'd opened my test Word document for viewing, the Word Web App promised improved performance and rendering if I installed Silverlight, which I did while testing with Internet Explorer 8. The Silverlight plugin delivered its promised performance improvements while zooming in and out of the documents I viewed. Without the plugin, zoomed-in documents appeared somewhat jagged-looking.

In my tests with Firefox on Linux, I installed Novell's Moonlight plug-in in an attempt to partake in the promised Silverlight goodness, but the plug-in prevented me from viewing these documents at all. In tests with a previous version of the Web Apps, the presence of the plug-in seemed to have no effect at all, so this is one area where cross-platform support has actually backslid. I had to uninstall the plug-in to get back in business.

With the Silverlight detour behind me, I found that my test document rendered rather nicely in both Firefox and IE. I was able to scroll through my documents with ease, with new pages loading promptly as I moved through the document. Links embedded in my test document, such as those in the table of contents, worked as I expected, and I could zoom in and out of the document in more or less the same way as with the desktop-based version of Word. Also, I was pleased to see that the Web version of Word mimics well the handy sidebar-based document search feature that's new to Word 2010.

Each of the Office Web Apps offered an option for opening the current document directly in its full-sized Office application, but this feature only works on Internet Explorer and Windows. According to Microsoft, the online office applications use WebDAV (Web-based Distributed Authoring and Versioning) as the underlying protocol for this integration, so such a connection should be possible. While testing on Linux, I was able to work around the issues by downloading my test documents, editing them in, and then uploading the files back to the Web or to SharePoint.

My experiences testing with the Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote Web Apps were similar to what I found with Word-in each case, I could view binary-formatted Office documents with good fidelity, but I had to convert to the newer formats for editing.